Gender and Schooling

Ending bullying and harassment, and promoting sexual diversity in schools.

Gender Diverse Parenting: Creating Space For Kids

Challenging stereotypes and empowering children to be their true selves

I am in the middle of attending the First National Workshop on Gender Creative Kids, a 2 ½ day conference in Montreal, QC, Canada, that brings together parents, educators, social workers, counselors, educators, and physicians to identify and plan ways to reduce the negative impacts of strict social gender norms on the lives of children – particularly gender independent/creative and trans* children. The two panels that really moved me yesterday were ones where parents discussed the ways in which they are creatively parenting to allow space for their children to fully be who they are and develop the strength to fully embrace what Dr. Diane Ehrensaft calls their “true gender self” and reduce the need to have a “false gender self”. I am going to write about the first panel here, and follow up with a second post about the rest of the day.

I was moved by the first presenter’s outline of the premises of what she calls “gender diverse parenting” which she documents on her blog www.raisingmyboychick.com. She gave the following list of basic principles that are the foundation for her approach to raising her children:

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  • gender is real, intrinsic and mostly, immutable
  • genitals are not gender
  • gender is innate, present from the start of life
  • Gender stereotypes are harmful
  • Coercive gender assignment is harmful to transgender children
  • Coercive gender expectations are harmful for gender non-conforming children
  • We cannot know before a self-assertion of gender which children are transgender or gender creative
  • The harms of coercive gender assignment begins before self-assertion of gender
  • We have a moral obligation to reduce harm to transgender and gender creative children

In her brilliant presentation she outlined these premises and then discussed her goals which are: "to raise persons with a rich nuanced appreciation for gender" and to create a world with a rainbow of gender. She advocates for thinking about gender as a provisional assignment. What this means is that in young children, the sex assigned at birth can “hold a blank space to be filled in later” and that we all need to acknowledge “the tentative nature of the assignment.” She also believes in providing children with cultural savvy and personal safety so children are aware of the risks in challenging gender, but so that they are empowered to make small rebellions that are authentic to them.

PFLAG mom holding sign

PFLAG mom

A second parent (mother of 8, and foster parent to many more) spoke of some of these small rebellions she made for her children: she refuses to fill out the gender question on forms, and “will use the male washroom [single user] in Starbuck’s”. She powerfully asserted that a “mother’s unconditional love should surpass gender expectations.” It was so moving to see the pride and joy she had in talking about her beautiful children.

A third set of parents described their  democratic parenting style that was rooted in Freirean ideals of critical pedagogy. One parent told the compelling story of wanting to enroll their young boy in a ballet class and how this created a challenge. She asked “why do you want to know this information and how are you going to use it?” [my comment: Because really – the child just wants to dance, does it matter if they have boy-parts or girl-parts at age 4 or 5 or 6? Or ever?] However, this refusal to fill out the gender box caused a major incident and they were almost not able to enroll the child in the class. They spoke eloquently about empowering their children and the ways their family creates spaces for choice through family council meetings and encouraging children to speak up and voice their views. As an opposite-sex cisgender couple, it was interesting to hear them talking about ‘queering parenting’ and challenging some of the dominant norms established in family institutions. Their goal is to raise children who are ‘gender critical’ or ‘gender engaged’ so that their children understand that in a world full of problematic power relations, ‘neutral’ won’t work, “there is no neutral, there can never be neutral.”

The last parent on the panel told a compelling story of challenge and triumph in the process of supporting her teenage trans daughter who identified herself to her mother at the age of 3. The number of the times this family had to move and change schools was heartbreaking to hear. However, the power of the family support and its ability to provide a source of support and resilience to this child was apparent in her smile and the light in her eyes when I met her later that day.

I know all readers of this blog may not feel the need or see the relevance for understanding some of the stories I’ve just shared here. However, I feel that all parents can learn to help their children be more empowered and ‘gender engaged’. If we give our young people opportunities to speak about gender, to tell us how it makes them feel, and ask them how they want to dress and be named, then we will have a growing population of strong, critical, and engaged children supporting gender equity and diversity which I believe will move us all to become better people.

Elizabeth Meyer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California.

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